Reviews & Press

Ottawa Citizen

April 2012

Literally Distracted

By K. Jill Rigby

If you love to travel and enjoy reading, Ann Kirkland’s Toronto-based company offers guided trips inspired by literature. “My clientele [mostly women over 40] are big readers,” explains Kirkland. “Our trips remove the hassle from individual travel while creating experiences difficult to find on your own.” Fuss-free, unique tours — likely the reason so many of Kirkland’s clients have travelled with her more than a dozen times. This month, “Mystery & Manners in Savannah: Selected Works of Flannery O’Connor” visits the author’s childhood home, where a personal friend of O’Connor’s chats with the group. “Taking Your Soul for a Stroll” in October follows the famous path to Santiago de Compostela and looks at the theme of pilgrimage in books by T.S. Eliot and Yeats, among others. “Vietnam Voices: A Balanced Opposition” examines the yin and yang of the country’s literature while travelling during November to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Closer to home, a week-long series of seminars based on various readings will be held at the University of Toronto in July. One seminar focuses on women in literature and how men have portrayed them. Evening outings in Toronto include guided art walks, films and concerts (

Read the full article here.


Ottawa Citizen

19 November 2011

What’s it like to walk the walk on Camino de Santiago?

10 questions about hiking El Camino de Santiago, currently starring in the Martin Sheen film The Way

By Laura Robin

There are probably as many reasons to walk the Camino de Santiago trail in northern Spain as there are people doing it. And those numbers are growing remarkably: in 1985, 690 pilgrims arrived at the end-point cathedral in Santiago; by 2010 the number had grown to more than 270,000.

With a new movie, The Way (currently showing at the ByTowne) focusing on the famous walk, interest is sure to spike again. For some insights into walking the walk, we caught up with Ann Kirkland, the Toronto owner of the learning vacations company Classical Pursuits.


Ottawa Citizen

2 April 2011

Walking with Socrates

Emily Lambert

Ann Kirklan and Barbara Zabel - Classical Pursuits Literary TripsBarbara Zabel, of Ottawa, has taken four trips with the Toronto company Classical Pursuits. She says she loved them all, but perhaps her favourite moment was in Palermo, Italy, a few years ago.

“We had read (Giuseppe) Lampedusa’s The Leopard before going. In Palermo, a young local artist and poet read the end of the book to us, right at the spot where the novel is set. You have a real experience. It’s completely different than just reading a book -it stays with you, it changes your world view.”

When Classical Pursuits bills itself as offering learning vacations with a difference, it isn’t kidding.

The company is the creation of Ann Kirkland, who spent most of her career working in health policy.

“When I was 53 and off work after having bunion surgery, I realized that, while I had loved my work, it was time to do something different.”

As she cast about for ideas for a new career, she says she kept coming back to some remarkable courses she had taken at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The college operates according to principles of the Chicago-based Great Books Foundation, which uses a discussion method called “shared inquiry.”

“Professors profess,” says Kirkland, “and much of what I had learned earlier in university went in one ear and out the other.”

With “shared inquiry,” discussion leaders ask only open-ended questions, never giving their own opinion or a “right” answer and leading participants to share ideas and develop their own concepts more deeply. It’s the Socratic method, except that the discussion leader does not have the answer.

“All the books I discussed in Santa Fe stayed with me much more and provided lasting insights,” says Kirkland. “I thought maybe something like this could work in Toronto.”

In 1999, after taking early retirement from her job at a Toronto hospital, she started Classical Pursuits, hiring leaders experienced in the shared inquiry method to offer four different five-day sessions one summer week on the campus of the University of Toronto. Topics included Plato’s Republic and Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.

“It went very well,” says Kirkland.

Those Toronto-based classes have grown; this summer, from July 17 to 22, Classical Pursuits will offer 11 sessions, accommodating 125 to 130 people, and covering everything from Chekhov and Virginia Woolf to “Vienna: World Capital of Classical Music.”

“I try to get a mix of time periods and novels, poetry, music, art, political philosophy and sometimes film,” says Kirkland.

She got into the travel business almost by accident.

“It started in 2003 with what I thought was a one-off. It was called “Classical Pursuits Goes to Medieval Italy,” based on Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.”

The trip was such a huge success that participants asked for more. She followed with “They Came to Paris,” about the wave of Americans who went to Paris in the 1920s; participants read works by Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein.

Now the trips, which are also led by a professional skilled in the shared inquiry method, account for about half of Classical Pursuits’ business. Kirkland offers five or six trips each year; upcoming ones include “In Search of the Newfoundland Soul” (based on works by Michael Crummy and Bernice Morgan), “Sachertorte and Paprikash” (subtitled “Musical meanderings along the Blue Danube, Vienna, Budapest and the Tokaj wine region of Hungary”), “Art and Life in Renaissance Florence” and “Taking Your Soul for a Stroll -a walk along 100 miles on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.”

Kirkland doesn’t just talk the talk. For her 65th birthday, she gave herself six weeks off work and walked the entire Camino pilgrimage trail from France through northern Spain by herself, covering 18 to 30 kilometres each day, with a pack on her back.

Zabel met Kirkland on a plane as Kirkland was flying home from that first trip to Italy. They struck up a conversation, then a friendship, and now Zabel has taken four of the Toronto-based sessions as well as four trips and is one of a handful of repeat customers from Ottawa.

Zabel is a retired teacher with a background in science and says she has chosen subjects -her first session was on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude -“to offset the strictly science thing.”

Now Zabel, along with two other Classical Pursuits participants from Germany, has helped Kirkland plan a June trip to that country called “Made in Germany: Tales from three cities.” The trip will take in Dresden, Weimar and Berlin, with readings from Goethe, Nietzche, Günter Grass and Peter Schneider.

“We’ve come up with a great set of readings, and participants will get to meet the daughter of a man who ran an underground newspaper in East Germany,” says Zabel. “It’s through things like this that special moments come about.”

Kingston says one of the things she has to counter is the perception that you need to be well-educated or highbrow to enjoy her learning vacations.

“Men, especially, seem to be afraid that they will make fools of themselves, but once they come, they know it’s not like that. One of my favourite participants is a bartender from Pennsylvania. Nobody needs advanced degrees. Some people do have PhDs, but generally not in the topics they come to discuss.”

Kirkland says she’s had participants as young as high-school students and young 20s, but the biggest age group is between 50 and 70.

“I get a lot of lawyers and judges. I think maybe they enjoy it because they get a chance to entertain ambiguity -there’s no right answer.”

Kirkland says people tend to choose a trip because of the destination, but in the end “it’s the conversations and the books and the exchange with local people that give people that most satisfaction.

“They connect on a deeper level. Lasting friendships form. We’ve even had a marriage.”

Laura Robin is the Citizen’s travel editor.


The company: Classical Pursuits

What it offers:

– Toronto-based learning vacations: 11 different sessions will be offered July 17 to 22 at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College. The cost of $1,250 per session includes seminars each morning as well as lunch, afternoon and evening activities, two evening receptions with drinks and hors d’oeuvres and a film night with dinner. Price does not include accommodation, but participants can stay in a student residence for $50 a night (which includes a hot breakfast) or get a preferred rate at a nearby hotel.

– Trips: Five “opportunities to travel through space and time” are being offered for 2011; six in 2012. Prices range from about $2,200 to about $5,300 and do not include airfare.

– Made-to-Measure: Kirkland is now offering custom trips, aimed at book clubs, groups of friends or school groups or cultural institutions. “We can take you anywhere in the world and expose you to a selected thematic aspect of a chosen place in a way that is authentic, stimulating and memorable,” Kirkland says.

– Suggested themes include “Rugged Love in a Rugged Land” (Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights transplanted to Cornwall) or “The Algonquin Round Table” (with readings by Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and others in Midtown Manhattan).

– A Grand Tour of Italy for Grand Children and their Grandparents: Kirkland will start offering intergenerational trips with a trip to Italy that includes seeing how mozzarella cheese is made, a visit to a Venetian boatyard where gondolas are made and a visit to an artist complete with a sketching class.

More: Call 1-877-633-2555 or see


Virgin Australia

September 2011

Novel Pursuits

By Joel Meares

When I spoke to her in June she was calling from the home of a woman in Lüneburg, just outside of Hamburg. She was on the Made in Germany tour – on of the half-dozen or so trips that Classical Pursuits now offers every year – that took in Dresden, Weimar and Berlin over 12 nights, and for which the group chewed on writing by Goethe and Nietzsche. Kirkland’s reading group first went “on the road” in 2002 for Classical Pursuits Goes to Medieval Italy, based around Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. It was suppose to be a one-off, but the trip was such a success that Kirkland immediately followed it up with a voyage to France in which tour-goers discussed Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein in the very Parisian cafes where the authors had sipped coffee in the 1920s. This year, as well as Germany, Classical Pursuits went to Florence, Vienna, Budapest and, a little closer to home for Kirkland, Newfoundland. The trips can be expensive – some as high as €4000 ($5260) – but they include experts, local personalities who can bring the novel’s setting to life and, of course, the books themselves. The price might even include love: a Canadian couple who met on the Eco trip have been married for eight years.

Read the full article here.




5 May 2008

Scriveners’ Holiday; Want to see where great literature was wrought? Take a factory tour

Emily Lambert

…Deborah Lindsay, wife of an Atlanta restaurateur, logs 75,000 air miles a year on pleasure trips. She’s been to Tuscany, Machu Picchu, Egypt, India, China, the Baltic, Turkey, Paris and Alaska. Fun as those trips were, something was lacking. She wanted a deeper understanding of the places and cultures she was visiting. So she signed up for a literary tour.

In October 2006 she returned to Paris, this time with assigned reading given her by Classical Pursuits, a Toronto literary tour company. Among 13 fellow travelers on the seven-day experience were several retired professors. The group’s guide took them to cafes once frequented by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and other Lost Generation writers. “We spent two mornings [discussing] a Fitzgerald short story,” Lindsay recalls. Never before had she appreciated, for example, why Paris had drawn so many U.S. expat writers

…Last summer Barbara Speck took a literary tour to Galicia, Spain, where she stayed out until 3 a.m. drinking wine and dancing to rock music with her fellow readers at an outdoor festival. They were up the next morning at 8 to eat breakfast and later discuss the writings of St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa de Avila and Jack Hitt, a contemporary American writer. “These are not nerdy book people at all,” she says. Speck, who co-owns a winery in St. Catharines, Ontario, last fall took her seventh tour with Classical Pursuits (to Santa Fe to discuss Wallace Stegner) and just last month spent five days in Savannah, Georgia exploring the short stories of Flannery O’Connor.



22 October 2007

Take A Literary Field Trip

By Anna Kuchment

…Though trips like Mark Twain’s Mississippi appeal to all age groups, their popularity has grown as baby boomers approach their empty-nest years. “Baby boomers are a very well-read group and they travel quite a bit,” says Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the Travel Industry Association. A 2006 TIA survey showed that 56 percent of adults were interested in enrichment, or educational, trips. “As kids, we ask, ‘Why, why, why?’ but then we get busy with our lives and put those questions away,” says Ann Kirkland, founder of Classical Pursuits (classical in Toronto. “But there comes a time when we have a little more space for reflection and we go back to those questions.”

…The purpose of the trips is to help bring readers’ favorite books to life. Marjorie Noonan, 58, just returned from Classical Pursuits’ Mystery and Manners in Savannah: Selected Works of Flannery O’Connor ($1,960 for four nights). Her favorite moment: visiting O’Connor’s church and hearing firsthand memories of the author from her (former) fellow parishioners. It doesn’t get more lifelike than that.


USA Today

09 September 2005

10 great places to learn your heart’s desire

Shawn Sell

Never a better time, now that the kids are back in school, to travel and learn something new — just for you. “Whether it’s a day, a weekend or a week, a learning vacation is a renewing experience,” says Dorlene Kaplan, publisher of ShawGuides, which puts out educational travel guides covering more than 5,000 learning vacation programs worldwide ( Here, Kaplan shares with USA TODAY’s Shawn Sell some exciting educational travel spots to explore.

Toronto Pursuits -Toronto

“The Great Books Foundation partners with this travel company to offer overseas trips (Classical Pursuits) or local discussion groups (Toronto Pursuits) focusing on culture, literature and art,” says Kaplan. The emphasis is “‘shared inquiry,’ in which discussion leaders provide background and participants explore questions raised by the material.” In Toronto, readers choose one Tuesday a month to meet and discuss specific literary works. 800-387-2977;
The New York Times

31 July 2005

Read the Book, Then See Where the Story Took Place


While ”The Da Vinci Code” has spawned its own tourist phenomenon with $3,000 trans-Atlantic tours and $400 all-day walks in Paris along the da Vinci trail, a number of niche tour operators are offering customized literary tours that cater to the interests of a wide variety of book lovers.

Ann Kirkland, a Toronto tour planner, arranges literary itineraries in collaboration with the Great Books Foundation of Chicago. Participants receive books before departure and are accompanied by experienced discussion leaders and local experts.

…”My objective is to get participants to understand the inspiration and thinking behind the authors of the works we discuss,” said Ms. Kirkland, who founded Classical Pursuits;; (877) 633-2555. Ms. Kirkland said that a trip to Italy focused on what Dante experienced when he wrote; and in Dublin the understanding of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde were aided by talks with an Irish historian, Tim Pat Coogan.


Toronto Star

August 2005

High Culture Club

Kevin J. Siu

…It’s Monday Morning, and we’re thrashing out the truth behind the war. Joan, a retired professor, suggests honour. Pricilla, a lawyer, adds the notion of glory and pride. Bill, a community college professor, quotes General Robert E. Lee and waxes poetic about a hard hockey hit, while Dick, a “99 per centre retired” lawyer, maintains it’s a trade a war. Martha, a small-press book publisher, points out, “Well, Helen is the most beautiful woman in the world.” We’re in a classroom at the University of Toronto; the war was in Troy.

…Scott glances at the clock; it’s almost noon. “Guys, we’ve been at this for a week. We know what we should do, but…” He offers a choice: parse the meaning of the final immolation scene – the climax of the Ring Cycle – or sit back and enjoy it on DVD. It’s no contest. As the ex-Valkyrie Brünnhilde commits herself to the funeral pyre, the river floods, the Rhinemaidens reclaim the ring and the hall of Valhalla combusts into flames, a hush descends upon the group. The gods are no more; a new cycle has begun. With the final curtain, the group gives Wagner the dutiful minute of silence. Then, as [Iain] Scott packs up his laptop and DVD player, discussion begins anew; lunch be damned.
The Globe and Mail

31 July 2004

Navigating a timely classic; On the eve of the Athens Summer Olympics, SANDRA MARTIN attends a summer camp for intellectuals, where reading Homer’s tale of Greek gods and warring kings prods her to ponder timeless questions such as, who’s in charge here?


Reading Homer could have been a solitary exercise — impressive on the subway or lying on the beach — but I opted for a group effort so that I could trade impressions and insights with other aficionados. And I knew just the place: Classical Pursuits, a week-long summer camp for intellectuals run by Ann Kirkland at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.

…On a more philosophical level, Homer’s account of the Trojan war raises all sorts of issues about leadership, fighting for a just cause, the difference between honour and glory, and asks who is really in charge — the gods, who represent fate, or the mortals whom we link with individual will. That’s the other thing about reading great literature. Instead of pat answers that date like yesterday’s headlines, it asks big open-ended questions about the meaning of life and death.
Wall Street Journal

06 February 2004

PERSONAL JOURNAL — Travel With a Touch of Class — These Excursions Exercise Both Your Mind and Body

By Erika Lederman

THE GRAND TOUR may have died, but travel for self-improvement has merely adapted.

Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome, where young European aristocrats of centuries past spent months traveling with instructors, putting a cap on their classical education, are filled these days with tourists who arrive by bus or cheap flight for the day or weekend. But thanks to the educational-tourism industry, the well-heeled can still take journeys of self-improvement, at any age. The trips don’t take as long as they did 200 years ago, but the destinations have become more varied — everywhere from the Galapagos for a close-up view of evolutionary biology to the Greek Islands for a review of the Peloponnesian War.

Proper preparation for these trips can include some study; it’s common for the organizers to provide

Classical Pursuits

This small Toronto company creates itineraries inspired by great works of literature.

Daily walks and small discussion groups of key texts are led by university professors and teachers from the independent, nonprofit educational organization the Great Books Foundation. The books are a springboard for discussion in small groups (usually 15 people or fewer) relating to the culture and society of the location.

“Too much travel leaves the traveler coming home and saying, `So what?”‘ says program director Ann Kirkland. “I think people are looking for purpose in their lives and that includes travel.”

So during two weeks in Italy in May, for example, Virgil’s “Aenid” and “I, Claudius” by Robert Graves (plus recommended background texts) will inspire an exploration of parallels between the politics of ancient Rome and contemporary U.S. politics. On escorted walks and excursions — to places such as the Forum, Pompeii, San Clemente and Ostia Antiqua — Jonathan Edmonson, a professor of classical studies at York University in Toronto, will discuss meanings and activities associated with particular buildings and public spaces. He and Don Whitfield, director of higher education programs at the Great Books Foundation, will deliver informal talks on topics such as urban design and city life and the balance of foreign expansion vs. stability at home.

01 June 2003



Q. I am looking for a tour where I can learn something and have intelligent discussions with people who don’t spend half their time shopping or griping about the food or the tour guide or why the bus had to leave the hotel at 6:30 a.m. I want something more challenging and a few steps up from Elderhostel. I don’t want to sleep and eat in college dorms. I think some museums and organizations have the kinds of trips I’m looking for. Can you help me find some? — Peter W., Huntsville, Ala.

A. A Toronto program called Classical Pursuits has a tour called “To Hell and Back with Dante,” a two-week tour of Italy focusing on the author’s Divine Comedy. It sounds interesting, as does a week in Paris focusing on the expatriates who lived there, such as Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. There are also learning vacations at the University of Toronto. Call Classical Pursuits at 877-633-2555.
University of Toronto

09 April 2003

Past Presidents’ Circle Events – Evening of Classical Pursuits

University of Toronto

Ann KirklandIt was an evening of classical music and discussion of the classics in Father Madden Hall at St. Michael’s College. Presidents’ Circle member, Ann Kirkland, the founder and coordinator of the Classical Pursuits Program, introduced nearly 110 PC members to this week long mini-academic escape held every July for mature students. After a brief testimonial from former participant, Gail Aller-Stead, Ann lead members in a mock shared-inquiry discussion of a Virginia Woolf piece “The Love of Reading”. For more information on Classical Pursuits, please call Ann at (416) 892-3580 or visit
Wichita Eagle

02 June 2002



Ann Kirkland attended three summer sessions of the St. John’s program and was so impressed that in 1998 she launched a similar Classical Pursuits program at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, where she is a resident professor. The 2002 session is scheduled for July 7-13, and particip ants can choose one of the 10 seminars, including Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” and Thomas Mann’s “Dr. Faustus.” Classes are kept small (15 max), so there is plenty of opportunity to voice your thoughts and to get to know classmates. The program price for the week is Can. $1,000 (U.S. $630). That rate includes enrollment in one seminar for the week, lunches, receptions and some excursions, but does not include lodging. For singles, the most affordable place to stay is on campus in single rooms with shared bath, for Can. $330 per week (about U.S. $205 for the week), and that price includes a hot breakfast every morning. If you want a private bathroom, try the Bay Bloor Executive Suites near campus (800/263-2811), where rates will cost two people about U.S. $387 for the week. For more information about St. Michael’s Classical Pursuits program, write to St. Michael’s College, Continuing Education, 81 St. Mary Street, Toronto, ON M5S 1J4, call (877) 633-2555. Look up program information on the Web at
Toronto Star

16 May 2002

Travelling in a state of mind

John Karastamatis

“Unless vacation travel is a learning experience, unless it leaves you a bit different from what you were when you began, it is, in my view, a pointless physical exercise.”

– Arthur Frommer

Right here in Toronto, a summer program offers a wonderful vacation alternative for the spirited traveller. Classical Pursuits is an independently run initiative at the University of Toronto, St. Michael’s College, taking place this year from July 7 to 13. It’s a kind of summer camp for adults. Think Club Med, except that participants partake of cultural activities in place of sport.

Instead of windsurfing or scuba diving, there are guided conversations of great books and pieces of music with like-minded people. And that’s just in the mornings.

Afternoons and evenings are given over to gourmet lunches with wine, walking tours, museum- and gallery-hopping and theatre-going. Classical Pursuits is the brainchild of Ann Kirkland, a local medical administrator.

“I enjoy a good holiday as much as anyone,” says Kirkland, “but I found that the most satisfying and pleasurable vacations were the ones where I felt I was gaining something intangible and connecting with others.”

Classical Pursuits is based on the practices of the Great Books Movement, which began in Chicago 50 years ago. “Simply put,” Kirkland explains, “a small group of people get together and discuss one of the great works of literature. For one week, you immerse yourself in ideas, stimulating conversation and good food. You step outside yourself and forget whether you bought cat food.

“And the best thing about it is that it happens all in your mind. You may literally only be two blocks from your home but through the magic of literature and the company of others you are transported worlds away.

“Some people may think it’s like going back to school,” says Kirkland. “But it’s nothing like it. It’s not intimidating at all. It’s fun and very social. You’ll hear lots of laughter.” The cost is $1,000 per person for the week. This includes books, a hot lunch daily and a host of other activities and receptions. And if you really want to physically get away, accommodation is also offered, from a basic campus room for only $55 per night to a special rate at the luxurious Sutton Place Hotel.
Los Angeles Times

07 April 2002

On a Budget Trips That Are Real Page-Turners


Ann Kirkland attended three summer sessions of the St. John’s program and was so impressed that in 1998 she launched a similar Classical Pursuits program at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto.

The 2002 session is scheduled for July 7 to 13. Participants can choose one of 10 seminars, including Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” and Thomas Mann’s “Dr. Faustus.” Classes have 15 people maximum, so there is plenty of opportunity to voice your thoughts and to get to know classmates.
Toronto Star

12 July 2001

Reading leads to asking — Classical Pursuits aims to make participants think about and discuss the great ideas

Judy Stoffman

Some people look forward to a summer holiday spent on Outward Bound-style adventure trips. Others prefer to be Inward Bound, replenishing their depleted intellectual resources during their summer break.

For the latter group, an unusual type of adult day camp called Classical Pursuits takes place next week at University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College.

Participants of diverse backgrounds and ages come together to study and discuss great books – such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Sigmund Freud’s Civilization And It’s Discontents – under the guidance of a group leader who poses stimulating questions rather than lectures at them in the traditional way.

There are no exams, quizzes or term papers, just the pleasures of reading, talking and stretching your mind.

This democratic learning method, called “shared inquiry,” was popularized by the Great Books Foundation, set up 50 years ago in Chicago. It has spread like wildfire in adult education throughout the U.S., but is less well known in Canada.

Ann Kirkland, who introduced Classical Pursuits three years ago, was working in health administration in the early ’90s when she discovered the power of this approach at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M., where her eldest daughter was a student. Her daughter had gone there from Toronto because she had some learning difficulties that could not be addressed at a conventional university.

“St. John’s is one of the oldest colleges in the U.S., but it was a dying school until they introduced shared inquiry. They teach everything through questioning. They held a parents’ weekend to show us their methods and the parents all read Antigone and had the most wonderful discussion. I was hooked,” Kirkland recalls over lunch near the campus. “It developed really good listening skills and opened you up to new ways of thinking.”

She went back to Santa Fe three times for summer sessions until the exchange rate on the dollar made it prohibitive, at which point she started searching for a comparable Canadian program and found there weren’t any. She put together a proposal and found St. Michael’s College willing to give her program a home.

“Shared inquiry is way for a group to interpret a work of literature by engaging with the questions raised by the book, suspending your response or critical judgments until you’ve figured out what the author is saying. It’s not like joining a book club where you start with what people think of the book, if they like it or not,” she says.

“The leader does not come on as an expert in the work. The leader is an expert in how to steer discussion. It’s been tried with school children and it’s been tried in prisons and it works.”

Kirkland later sends along a powerfully moving article by two profs at the State University of New York about their experience teaching Dante’s Divine Comedy to hardened criminals at Attica prison through shared inquiry.

This year, Kirkland is offering a choice of seven topics. In addition to George Eliot and Freud, Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy, Othello (both Shakespeare’s play and Verdi’s opera), four texts on the Renaissance, Homer’s Odyssey and a discussion series on Jewish literature that has drawn the most interest so far.

Gary Schoepfel, who will lead the Deptford Trilogy study, is a vice-president of the non-profit Great Books Foundation and runs books programs in Chicago and other places around the U.S.

Funded by the Ford foundation, the Great Books Foundation was the brainchild in 1947 of Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, and the philosopher Mortimer Adler, a relentless categorizer, list maker and popularizer who is still active at the age of 97.

The success of the Great Books foundation is a remarkable testament to the American drive for self-improvement as well as that country’s genius for merchandising.

Adler came up with the Syntopicon, a list of 102 great ideas that in his opinion form the substrata of literature and history, and then had the foundation select the classic books that best embodied the great ideas. In 1951, Encyclopedia Britannica published the books, all written before 1900, in 54 volumes. In 1990 they were brought up to date and reissued in 54 volumes, ending with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.

Later, Adler decided that there were really only 64 great ideas and published a new list.

Then in 1981, he wrote Six Great Ideas (he’s published 50 books since 1927), the basis of a PBS television series. The six ideas are: truth, beauty, goodness, liberty, equality and justice. Today Adler heads a sister foundation, Center for the Study of the Great Ideas.

“We draw heavily on the list but its not fixed, it’s not a cannon,” says Schoepfel. “The service we provide is identifying materials that have discussability – we try to locate those sections within the corpus of a writer which are best suited for shared inquiry. And we publish them in low-cost paperback.”

The Great Books Foundation had close to 40,000 members in its heyday in the late ’50s and now has less than half that, but it’s had a great influence through the discussion leaders it has trained. “There was a always a great debate about can lay folk get together without help of an expert and read together. People who live in democracies need to talk about more than what’s on Oprah or what’s the best detergent. That’s what it’s about, ” Schoepfel says.

“We have a million children in junior programs – we trained 15,000 leaders in junior program which started in 1962, teachers and parents.”

Ann Kirkland is clearly on to something.

For demographic reasons, educational holidays and travel are a growing field. As the boomer generation gets older but, alas, no wiser, it’s members hunger for opportunities to find meaning through reading.

After Classical Pursuits, Kirkland is organizing a trip to Italy built around Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose.

“Education is not about being an empty vessel that has to be filled up by the teacher. It’s purpose is to awaken the mind and spirit,” she says.
Times Union

18 March 2001

Colleges open doors to adult summer learning


What could be better for your next vacation than a week or two on a famous college campus, staying in a student residence, absorbing classroom wisdom in the morning hours, and then tossing a frisbee or swimming in the college pool till dusk brings a movie or a stimulating general lecture? When their regular undergraduates have fled for the warm-weather months, many colleges keep their doors (and dorms) open for adults wanting to re-experience the happiest years of their lives.

University of Toronto

Taking a page from St. John’s of Santa Fe, the University of Toronto’s St. John’s College offers its own version of a great-books week starting July 15. Called “Classical Pursuits,” it’s a colloquium of readers who gather to discuss either Homer’s “The Odyssey”; the play and opera versions of “Othello”; “Middlemarch” by George Elliot; four noteworthy Renaissance works, including Machiavelli’s “The Prince”; Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents”; an anthology of great Jewish literature; or Robertson Davies’ “The Deptford Trilogy.”

Mornings are spent in heated discussion, and afternoons and evenings are devoted to gallery visits, theater performances, lectures and wine-tasting. The cost: a modest $1,000 Canadian ($654 in U.S. dollars) for breakfasts and lunches, all classes, your books, registration costs and activities. Add to that between $45 and $65 Canadian ($29 to $42 in U.S. dollars) per night for either single or double dorm rooms. The program is open to persons of all nationalities. For more information, go to classicalpursuits or call (877) 633-2555
The Globe and Mail

14 August 2000

My vacation with Thomas Mann Would you want to spend a week of your precious summer indoors, discussing Death in Venice? If you answered yes, join the club


The chance to stretch my mind, rather than bruise my body, drew me to Classical Pursuits, a week-long learning vacation at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. For two hours every morning, a group of us met with a tutor to discuss and compare three versions of Death in Venice: The novella by Thomas Mann, the opera by Benjamin Britten and the movie by Luchino Visconti.

…Studying the great works — in the original Greek and Latin — was once the bedrock of a classical education. That was before choice and the notion of training infiltrated the sacred and elitist groves. A nostalgic yearning for the best attributes of that old-fashioned approach to education has fostered Great Books programs at places such as the University of Kings College in Halifax and St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M.

…Basically, shared inquiry turns traditional lecturing inside out. The role of the group leader is to ask the perfect question, one to which there is no single answer, and then sit back and direct traffic while the participants exchange ideas and insights. Jones is an apt student of the method. Every day he arrived with a provocative question, such as “Why is Tadzio so compelling,” and threw it out to us like a stick to a pack of unleashed dogs in the park.

…And that ultimately is the secret of a good group: Everybody has a combination of talent and awareness to bring to the table, but what you take away is the synergy of shared experience.

Who says self-improvement has to be a body thing?